A friend called me, his voice shaky, asking if I could help him put the brakes on the flashbacks he was having after watching the first hour of the documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” that aired on Sunday, March 4, 2019 on HBO.
“It really blindsided me. I was just channel surfing and it came on. I always liked Michael Jackson and it wasn’t until I got into some of what was being shared that I realized it was going into detail how he sexually abused young boys. I became frozen, almost paralyzed, when each of the young men, now adults, described what happened to them when they were very young. Much of what they said mirrored many of my experiences as a child.”
A flashback occurs with all of us when something suddenly triggers a memory of a previous experience, often taking us back into our childhoods. Typically, a flashback is triggered by something sensory: a sight, sound, taste, smell or touch. It is as if we are thrown back in time and are back in a scene from our childhood, re-experiencing the sensations and the emotional and sensory reactions, including fear, terror, horror, arousal, fascination, curiosity, joy, and excitement, to name a few. It can feel that we are back in time, reliving the few moments or even a whole kaleidoscope of experiences that are connected to each the triggers that brought on the flashback in the first place.
Some flashbacks were fun and happy and allow us to relive something that was meaningful and/or pleasurable. But others trigger sensory memories of a time when we were being traumatized, perhaps a one-time event or some form of chronic abuse or neglect.
Traumatic flashbacks are somatic memories where suddenly it is as if you are back in time and space, re-experiencing a situation, feeling the feelings and the sensations. Sometimes the images are scattered and unclear, fragmented and almost nonsensical. Sometimes the images seem to loop, where they pop up, disappear and then flashback again. The loops can happen over and over and can seem virtually impossible to stop.
My friend described that once he was drawn into hearing the descriptions being shared, his mind pulled up flashback after flashback of being molested. He talked about specific details of the room, even the smells. One of the things that really set him off was about never being able to tell anyone for fear of repercussions. He remembered that he felt a horrible power to hurt his predator and had no escape from having to continue the relationship.
He said the flashbacks were like a loop that wouldn’t stop. The smells, the words, the touch… and how his heart began to race, and his anxiety skyrocketed. He was also terribly conflicted and confused about how much he loved this person for all the ways they cared for, yet violated him.
As he watched the documentary he was amazed at how the various adults at the time did not realize that these children were being molested. He remembered how his own family members seemed oblivious to all the signals they should have recognized: patterns of being invited to go to this man’s house, stay for hours, bring home gifts and money, and generally to be in an unnatural and potentially unhealthy relationship.
What he needed was someone to help him regain his sense of time, to help him know he was not that child anymore, that he was experiencing flashbacks and not actually reliving the whole experience. Part of what I was able to do was use Rothschild’s Flashback Protocol and be very intentional about helping him regain awareness of his surroundings. He needed time to tell his story. He needed to acknowledge and affirm that he was a victim, that what happened was wrong, resulting in him having a very confused understanding of love. He felt the guilt and shame that accompanies such an offense, that somehow he was at fault for what happened, because it is the nature of children to be egocentric, believing that they are responsible for what happens in the world around them.
People with unresolved trauma need to experience therapeutic interventions from professionals who are trauma-competent. They need to focus on being in the present, to retell their story if so inclined, to affirm the realities of the injustices done to them, and to understand the right to their feelings of pain/fear/shame/anger or any other emotional or sensory reactions they may be experiencing. This helps the trauma-impacted person not feel so alone, but that they are connected, safe and understood.
Invitation to Reflect
- If you have unresolved trauma, you may be familiar with the experience of flashbacks. Rothschild’s Flashback Protocol can help as a way to interrupt flashbacks that can be overwhelming and frightening and difficult to stop.
- If you ever are with someone who is having uncomfortable or even terrifying flashbacks, know that you can be a resource to them without having to take on responsibility for “curing” them from future flashbacks. Knowing how to respond and knowing it is not your job to “fix” someone with unresolved trauma can allow you to be a supportive friend or family member without feeling overwhelmed by responsibility.
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute